UFA Frenzy Winners and Losers

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·12 min read
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The free agent period is far from over, but enough has happened now that we can take at least a first pass on which teams have come out looking like winners and losers. There’s enough gray area here that I’ve also included a third category for teams I’m on the fence about. We’ll have to wait and see what happens with them.

WINNERS

Columbus Blue Jackets

When it was announced that Johnny Gaudreau wouldn’t be re-signing with the Calgary Flames, the understanding was that he wanted to play near home. In Gaudreau’s case, that made the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, and New York Islanders as the perceived frontrunners – though the Flyers didn’t end up pursuing him. Instead of going to any of those locations, Gaudreau signed with Columbus.

It wasn’t a money thing. The seven-year, $68.25 million contract he inked with the Blue Jackets is believed to be less than the Flames were offering him and likely below what other teams were willing to pay as well. Instead, it seemed that he just fell in love with the idea of playing for the Blue Jackets.

For a city that doesn’t have much of a history of luring in major UFAs, Gaudreau is a statement signing. He’s the kind of elite forward the Blue Jackets were lacking to lead their offense and at $9.75 million, he comes with a reasonable cap hit relative to what he brings to the table. If the Blue Jackets are able to also re-sign RFA Patrik Laine while staying under the cap, then it will be fun to see what that duo can do together.

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Ottawa Senators

When the Senators inked Claude Giroux to a three-year, $19.5 million contract it clearly signalled that the team is tired of being seen as a rebuilding squad. Combined with the Senators recent acquisition of veteran goaltender Cam Talbot and two-time 41-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat, and it’s easy to say that Ottawa looks like a better team today than they did at the end of the 2021-22 campaign.

Is it enough? Well, the Senators defense is still a question mark, and the goaltender tandem of Talbot and Anton Forsberg seems okay, but not great, but Ottawa’s forward core shouldn’t be underestimated. Adding Giroux and DeBrincat to a team that already included emerging stars Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, Drake Batherson, and Josh Norris should make them a fun team to watch.

The Senators look good enough to be a playoff team at this point. The only real reason why it’s more of a gray area is because the Atlantic Division is so top heavy that it’s hard for Ottawa to carve out a path there.

Carolina Hurricanes

Talk about leveraging your cap space. The Carolina Hurricanes added an elite scorer in Max Pacioretty and an aging, but still great offensive defenseman in Brent Burns. For Burns they paid a conditional third-round pick, a fourth line forward in Steven Lorentz, and an okay goalie prospect in Eetu Makiniemi while still getting the Sharks to retain 33% of Burns’ cap hit. In exchange for Pacioretty, Carolina gave up…nothing.

Well, okay, Carolina traded “future considerations” to Vegas, which usually means that Vegas is getting little or nothing. In both cases, the Hurricanes were taking advantage of the other teams desire to free cap space. Meanwhile, even after adding Burns and Pacioretty, the Hurricanes’ cap situation is still perfectly manageable.

Carolina was already a pretty good team, but after adding those two, they’re something of a dark horse to pencil in as a championship squad when looking ahead to 2022-23.

Edmonton Oilers

I’d be lying if I said that I was excited about the Oilers’ moves when compared to what the Blue Jackets, Senators, and Hurricanes did, but I still feel good enough about their moves to put them in the win column. Evander Kane comes with baggage, but his four-year, $20.5 million contract is reasonable given what he’s capable of putting up on the ice. For a while now, the narrative in Edmonton has been that the Oilers’ offense basically boils down to just Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, but with Kane, Zach Hyman, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins all locked up, that really isn’t true anymore.

On the goaltending front, Edmonton signed Jack Campbell to a five-year, $25 million deal. Campbell had some great moments in Toronto, but he’s also had some incredibly rough stretches. When he’s on his game, he’s a solid starter and a netminder who can help you win a tight playoff series. As far as starters go though, he’s not one of the more reliable ones, which makes the five-year commitment questionable. Still, the Oilers needed to add someone given the serious questions about Mike Smith’s health.

So, the Oilers ultimately made two significant moves that come with some risk, but at least have the potential to pay off nicely for them. After fighting their way to the Western Conference Final in 2022, Edmonton looks like a similarly skilled team that can have another good playoff run next season.

ON THE FENCE

Tampa Bay Lightning

Let’s put aside the fact that the Lightning lost Ondrej Palat. That’s a meaningful loss, but an anticipated one. Though it has to be said that between the loss of Palat and the earlier Ryan McDonagh trade, it’s hard to look at the Lightning and say they’re as good of a team as they were just a month ago. That’s not why I’m on the fence about their summer though.

What really gives me pause is their decision to sign Mikhail Sergachev to an eight-year, $68 million extension, Erik Cernak to an eight-year, $41.6 million contract, and Anthony Cirelli to an eight-year, $50 million contract. I don’t have an issue with any of those contracts in isolation – though I do think Cernak stands out as a potential overpay – but I question how they intend to manage their cap going forward. All three of those contracts begin with the 2023-24 campaign, so for now it doesn’t matter, but they’ve already committed to $79.7 million over 12 players starting in 2023-24. Even IF the cap starts going up by a meaningful amount that season, it’s hard to see how the Lightning can navigate that situation without making significant, Vegas-level cap cutting sacrifices.

I’m putting them in the “on the fence” category because GM Julien BriseBois probably knows more than me and there’s still time for him to make this work. So, we’ll have to wait-and-see if he’s got a long-term plan that works or if the Lightning’s cap situation is as bad as it appears at first glance.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs did make some affordable signings, but their main action was trading for Matt Murray and signing Ilya Samsonov to a one-year, $1.8 million contract. That will be the Leafs’ goaltending tandem next season and it’s a risky one.

There’s certainly potential there. Murray was good at times last season, and it wasn’t so long ago that Samsonov was considered a high-level goaltending prospect. That said, Samsonov hasn’t developed as hoped and Murray has injury troubles on top of his inconsistent play. I’m not convinced that this combination will work out for Toronto.

That being said, it’s not as if the Maple Leafs goaltending was great last season. Petr Mrazek was a disaster and like Murray, Jack Campbell had his strong moments, but also had some really rough stretches. The Leafs still managed to dominate in the regular season in large part because they’re an offense juggernaut, but also because their defense has been developed into an underrated asset.

Toronto is a good bet to make the playoffs even if Murray and Samsonov don’t play out as hoped. Can they win the Cup with this tandem though? I’m not convinced of that and with Matthews’ existing contract ending in 2023-24, this coming season is of particular importance for them.

So we’ll see. I won’t say that Toronto’s summer has been terrible, but they are entering the season with a major question mark.

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Detroit Red Wings

Like Ottawa, Detroit tried to use this summer to push beyond the rebuilding phase. In particular, they signed David Perron to a two-year, $9.5 million contract, Andrew Copp to a five-year, $28.125 million contract, and Ben Chiarot to a four-year, $19 million contract. The thing is though, I don’t think those moves make them a playoff team. Honestly, I don’t even see them as being close given that they play in the Atlantic Division.

Would you put Detroit ahead of Florida, Toronto, or Tampa Bay? I’m guessing not. What about the Boston Bruins? Or for that matter even the Ottawa Senators? Personally, I wouldn’t. On top of that, I think Copp and Chiarot were overpaid, even in the context of Day 1 UFA signings.

I’m not saying that Detroit have done poorly for themselves over the last week. I’m just have significant doubts about what they’ve done and what it will accomplish, hence their placement in this tier.

Boston Bruins

If we were grading teams, the Bruins would get an “incomplete.” David Pastrnak hasn’t inked an extension yet, Patrice Bergeron is an UFA, and it remains to be seen if they can lure back David Krejci. Whether or not they can accomplish those three tasks will go a long way towards determining if their summer will be judged as a success or not.

We’ll see. This is an important summer for them, but nothing of particular importance has been firmed up yet.

LOSERS

Vegas Golden Knights

They traded Max Pacioretty for basically nothing. Marc-Andre Fleury for basically nothing. Evgenii Dadonov for Shea Weber…who unfortunately won’t play again, so basically nothing.

Vegas made signings and trades in the past like the salary cap didn’t exist and that’s come back to bite them in a big way. In their defense, they’re still a good team and could still bounce back after missing the playoffs last season, but man have they been forced to make some desperate trades.

Calgary Flames

For years the Flames tried to build a team around Johnny Gaudreau. It was an era that involved plenty of false starts, but last year things seemed to finally come together. They responded well to head coach Darryl Sutter, who guided them to a 50-21-11 record and the second round of the playoffs. Things finally seemed to be moving up.

Calgary was determined to re-sign Gaudreau. They reportedly offered him more than $80 million over eight years. Ultimately though, Gaudreau decided he wanted to play elsewhere, and he even took less money to play in Columbus.

You have to wonder if perhaps the Flames should have traded him prior to the deadline. Yes, it would have hurt to move a star of his caliber as they were gearing up for the playoffs, but the return would have been substantial, and it would have helped them going forward. That said, hindsight is 20/20 and of course we wouldn’t be having this conversation if he had re-signed.

Ultimately, it’s unfair to blame this on GM Brad Treliving. This really did seem to be a situation out of his control and all his options were bad. All the same, there’s no question though that the Flames are worse off now.

Philadelphia Flyers

So, what is the Flyers plan again? Clearly, they’re not rebuilding, but they don’t look like a contender either. They’re paying Rasmus Ristolainen a $5.1 million cap hit and now Tony DeAngelo is getting a $5 million cap hit. That’s not a great use of their limited resources.

Meanwhile, they bought out the final year of Oskar Lindblom’s contract. He would have come with a $3 million cap hit, but then he signed with San Jose to a two-year, $5 million deal. So are you telling me that trading Lindblom with a $3 million cap hit was an impossibility when another team was willing to give him a $2.5 million cap hit on Day 1 of the UFA market?

Meanwhile, Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher said that they “weren’t in” on Johnny Gaudreau. Why? It looked like he was interested in playing there. Granted, Gaudreau ultimately signed with Columbus, but who knows what might have happened if they tried. And yes, the Flyers are up against the cap, but that’s entirely because of the overpayments Fletcher has made in the past, so I’m not going to give him a pass on that.

The Flyers don’t want to rebuild, but they don’t seem capable of assembling a serious contender. So they’re in the worst place possible: Limbo.

New York Islanders

The Islanders are another team in win-now mode, but they’ve had a quiet summer. They were another team listed as a potential destination for Gaudreau and they ultimately couldn’t get him. The Islanders really need someone who can drive their offense, so it’s a shame.

I don’t want to be too hard on the Islanders because it’s not as if they’ve made bad signings or done any trades that I have any significant issue with. They just haven’t done much at all and for a team in their position, that’s a problem. That said, perhaps there’s still notable UFAs left and likely trade opportunities on the horizon, so the Islanders summer could prove to be a lot more productive than it currently appears.